Story from a Genocide Survivor





Searching for the truth. Number 45. January 2003.

A Magazine of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (Khmer version).

Family Tracing Section.









By Joanna R. Munson


September 3, 2003; Phnom Penh – The love between mothers and daughters can be fierce. It can be powerful, and in the face of adversity, devastating. In the tragic paring down of her family, Pom Sarun found herself, in the last months of 1975, left with the survival of her mother and her daughter in her hands. She was their lifeblood, she their savior. It was she who finished her work in the rice fields, on the dam, fishing the Tonle Sap, as quickly as possible in order to steal away and scavenge for food for her family. Snails, palm water, extra rice, bananas, mushrooms. It was she who, as group chief, generously doled out food for her team and did not take more for herself, in fact accepting only the leftovers. In thanks, her team kept secret her daily forays into the forest and the field to nourish her dying mother and stick-thin daughter. Of course, in the awful calculus of the Khmer Rouge regime, no amount of effort on her part, no Herculean feats of cunning and daring, could save them. The equation just did not work. More work did not equal survival.


Her mother, Thou Am, had been a cook for the Prince's wife in Phnom Penh. Before that, she sold sweets in the marketplace in Prey Veng Province, after her husband, Pom Soum, had abandoned the family in 1953. Her humble beginnings were a blessing, for she guided the well-educated and city-raised Sarun through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She taught her to farm and to be a competent villager. She taught Sarun to hide the education she had received in the best schools in Phnom Penh.


Sarun, born in 1950, and her two older brothers had moved to join their mother in Phnom Penh in 1956. They were raised with the Prince's family and despite their mother's social class, attended and completed the schools comprised almost entirely of the upper classes. After primary school, Sarun received three certificates for her work in the lycee. After four years, she received her "diplome"; after another one year, she received her baccalaureate 1 and then two years later, in 1968, her baccalaureate 2. She excelled in school. In 1968, she began a one-year teacher-training course in order to become a high school teacher. In 1969, she began her studies at both the Faculty of Pedagogy and the Faculty of Law. Her oldest brother worked as a technician for a sugar factory and her younger brother was a bridge installation technician.


Having refused to marry until she completed her teacher-training course, Sarun was married in 1970 to a Chinese-Cambodian who had spent the better part of three years trying to persuade her to marry him. She was not in love with him. But her mother reminded her that Sarun's family was not rich, and her mother was alone in the world. And Tain Hak Khun was a well-educated bachelor from a very rich family. He had studied business administration in Peking and then Hong Kong, and come back to Cambodia in 1965 to administer the family's various businesses, including their restaurant Kok Meng, their perfume and clothing store, and their jewelry store. He loved her fiercely, but with a jealousy and protectiveness that threatened to stifle her ambitions. He did not want her to work, he did not want her to study, he did not want her out in the world. In order to make him happy, Sarun began working for his import/export business, but she refused to end her studies. In 1971, she gave birth to a baby boy, Sambot, who was followed one year later by a baby girl named Pich Chan Mony. That tiny girl she held in her arms in Phnom Penh, very much alive and kicking, would die quietly of starvation in Sarun's arms five years hence, her last words whispered through the mesh of hammock, "Mum, I am so hungry."


Sarun would have graduated from the Faculty of Pedagogy and the Faculty of Law in 1975. Instead, the Khmer Rouge arrived. Her brothers and their wives had already come from outside the city to escape the bombs, and so the "liberation" found the entire family under one roof, mother, brothers, sisters-in-law, husband, son and daughter. They were evacuated to Sarun's mother's home village of Kompong Krasaing. After only three months there, the Khmer Rouge murdered her younger brother, who had worked as a soldier at the Department of Finance in the Lon Nol regime. They came to ask the brother to work in another village, a poorly disguised beckoning to death. He was murdered in the Koc Kak pagoda, leaving behind a pregnant wife. His death heralded the beginning of the horrific downsizing of Sarun’s family, from nine to four to two left alive in 1979.


After his death, they were transferred to the region west of Phnom Penh. One sister-in-law died from diarrhea and the other sister-in-law, having given birth to a baby boy, was sent away from the family. Sarun's son was also sent away, to work, at six years old, in a children's work unit. A few months after their transfer, Sarun's husband committed suicide. The physical cause of death was ingesting the poisonous fruit of the sen tree, which makes one's tongue bleed. But that was just the outward cause of death. He committed suicide because he was a rich and well-educated man who found himself incapable of taking care of his family, because of the shame of seeing his wife hit by a Khmer Rouge soldier, because he was starving and skinny, and because of guilt. He felt deep guilt, anguished guilt as heavy as a bomb, because before 1975, Sarun had told him that Cambodia would become communist, had begged him to move the family abroad. He had refused to believe that Cambodia, with all its riches, would ever turn communist.


Impotent in the face of the Khmer Rouge, with no skills to speak of, Tain Hak Khun was a defeated man. Sarun told him, "Don't worry, I can do. Just follow me."  But he said he could not live in this world, it was too hard to adapt to the situation. The day after Sarun was beaten with a cattle prod, for hiding her watch in a palm leaf (the neighbors must have told the soldiers on her), her husband ate the poisonous fruit. The blood from her beating at the hands of the KR soldier was little in comparison to the deep red river that welled up on her husband's tongue after eating the fruit of the sen tree.


In 1976, her older brother died. Sarun explains in English: "Because of no food and the men eat a lot and no energy, no power, skinny, skinny, skinny, works so hard, and so die. Not just our family, all family, every family, sometimes whole families."


Sarun was left with her mother and her daughter. At three o'clock in the morning, she would go to the field to work, leaving her daughter to be taken care of by her mother. Her group would work at rice planting or picking, at digging the dams, or fishing the Tonle Sap until 12 noon, when they would stop for a meal. At 1:30 or 2:00 PM, they would begin work again, working until the sun set over the rice fields, a red globe of flame. Sometimes, they would continue work until midnight, lighted by the electricity from a generator. At dinner, Sarun would save her food for her mother and daughter, wrapping it in a lotus leaf, and running without stop from her work unit to the base camp. The fastest route to the camp was through a mass gravesite, "but I never worry about corpses, worry only about food to eat and the soldiers of Pol Pot," Sarun says. At night, the lightning bugs would look like the lit tips of soldiers' cigarettes and send fear into her heart. The corpses were buried in shallow graves and wild dogs would dig them up. Sometimes a leg would be visible, gnawed on by the dogs and insects. The smell was awful. Water was scarce, so the corpse-filled dirt caked on Sarun's legs could not be washed away. Instead, they used the useless city-clothes brought with them from Phnom Penh to wipe away the death smell.


Once in the cooperative, Sarun would cook for her mother and daughter and they would be happy eating together. After eating, she would run a few kilometers away to a lake that still contained water and fill up her family's water pitchers. After delivering the water to her mother and daughter, she would then run back to her work unit camp and, sometimes with no sleep, begin her day all over again.


Her mother stayed alive so long because they had jewelry, Sarun explains. At four or five at night, Sarun would pretend to go looking for something. Instead, she would scout out the way to the Muslim community 12 kilometers away, where she could exchange her jewels for rice, cane sugar, and bananas. Later, under cover of darkness, Sarun would steal away from the cooperative, with the jewelry hidden in a kramar beneath her too-large black shirt. She would have a bamboo jug tied around her body in which to collect crabs and keep palm water. Two kilometers to the west of the camp, train tracks bisected the landscape, with Khmer Rouge soldiers policing it in groups. Sometimes she would wait two or three hours before it was safe to cross. Sarun says, "I do it alone. I believe, I trust only myself, since I can keep myself alive until now."


The night her mother died, Sarun returned from the Muslim community with rice, cane sugar, and banana to feed her weak mother. Her mother was lying in bed with her head to the east, and her granddaughter, daughter, and a cousin surrounding her. As the others slept, Sarun began to cry and the tears fell onto her mother's skin. Her mother said to her, "Do not regret the jewelry. We can only buy the things if we have the life. When we die, we cannot take these things with us. You have to sell all the things that you have to get the life."


She said, "You have to sleep, ko-an (daughter). You work so hard and have only a half-hour to sleep more. No need to wait up with me. There are many people around me now."


Her last words to Sarun were, "Do not hit your daughter. Be gentle with her." She said this because the girl had been born the same year (the year of the Pig), same day, and same month as Sarun's youngest brother, who had drowned in the river at age six. Now Pich Chan Mony was almost six. Her mother believed that the little girl was his reincarnation and worried about the girl's fate.


After the death of Thou Am, Sarun carried her daughter, papoose-style, on her back while she worked. Her daughter could not walk, so skinny was she. Sarun walked with a child on her back and her belongings on her head. One day she was so tired that she told her daughter, "So, daughter, you walk." Her daughter scolded her, "But I cannot walk." One night before her daughter died, Pich Chan Mony begged for sugar. Sarun climbed the palm tree, a kramar around her waist, a knife secure in its folds, and a bamboo jug to collect the water. She boiled the palm water and made sugar, and then cooked rice with the sugar and maize. She cooked this food to help the swelling in her daughter's limbs. The next day, it rained and rained. Her daughter slept in a separate hammock from Sarun. Tired, hungry, scared, sad, Sarun tried to sleep. "Mum, I want to sleep with you." Sarun was up from her hammock, across the hut, and then with daughter in her arms, back into her own hammock to rest. "Mum, I want to go to toilet." Tired, hungry, scared, sad, Sarun hit her daughter. One slap on the head. One slap only. Two hours later, her daughter was dead.


She was given one day off of work to bury her daughter. Later, she was sent far away from the cooperative to work, since she no longer had any dependents to take care of. Of children's deaths, Sarun remembers two stories: sometimes when a child would die, the family would not tell anyone, in order to continue receiving the child's food rations. Second, she recalls that if a child died, sometimes they would cut the body up into small pieces and fry the flesh, in order to exchange the meat, which they pretended was from mice or other small animals, for rice and other food. Three or four months after her daughter's death, it is harvest time and there is more food for everyone. If only her daughter had held on.


Around April of 1977, Sarun was assigned to marry Choeuth Sarath. She says, "Because I have no children, like that, they select by themselves that we need to marry this, this, who." Before 1975, Sarath was a Lon Nol soldier. He was married to the sister of a Khmer Rouge soldier, and this caused problems. Sarath was imprisoned, but he escaped and came to work in the same cooperative as Sarun. Sarun recalls, "We stay like brother and sister, no love....He and me never touch because I am not happy and very tired."


In August 1977, Sarun decided to escape to a Thai border camp, but she became sick from malnutrition and malaria. "Now I recognize I near die," she remembers, "Sometimes I know nothing around me." She could not stand or even sit. But she recalled what her mother had told her, that she had to be an optimist and that the jewelry should be used to "buy the life." Sarun begins to test the Khmer Rouge nurses to see who would accept the jewelry in exchange for better food and protection, and not kill her for possessing it. "Sometimes they like, sometimes no, they kill us. So I do the test, one week, two week." She watched one nurse who had continued to wear makeup, despite the Khmer Rouge control, "she wear the makeup and she like herself." One day Sarun said to her, "I am near death. I have one souvenir to give you, and when I die, this is the price you can pay to hire someone to bury me near my mother's grave." She was being deceptive, since she did not really want to be buried near her mother, but rather wanted to pay for the protection of the nurse. At first the nurse refused. Sarun told her that if she said it was a mistake and killed Sarun for it, that was okay, but if not, then she should keep the jewelry. During the next week, Sarun was given better food, and at the end of the week, she was selected to be transferred to a larger and better-equipped hospital. Of the seven people transferred, only Sarun was not a Khmer Rouge cadre. Of the nurse, Sarun says, "I think she is not the pure Khmer Rouge. Sometimes family is Khmer Rouge, so children just follow."


The hospital Sarun was transferred to was reserved for Khmer Rouge soldiers. The doctors were Chinese and the food more plentiful and better than anything in the cooperatives. Sarun says with a laugh, "There I became well and looked so nice!" It was here that Sarun accomplished her "achievement," as she calls it. Her eyes light up in the telling. The hospital was divided into work groups, just like the cooperatives. Of the seven groups, the third group was the most corrupt, "very stingy". They were supposed to be administering to the pregnant women, but would instead use the supplies for themselves. Since arriving at the hospital, Sarun had been very careful to conceal her education and background, acting as if she could read and write only a few words of Khmer. Now she decided to use her education to expose the corruption. On small pieces of paper, she wrote a note condemning the practices of the third group. She gave one note to a doctor's daughter who slept next to her, who in turn gave it to her father, without revealing its author. Other notes she passed surreptitiously around the hospital. Soon the leaders of the third group were exiled from the hospital and sent to work in cooperatives.  Sarun laughs at the memory of her achievement.


Three or four months after arriving at the hospital, Sarun was sent back to her cooperative. But she never got there, "I run away and visit the graves of my family. I see bones but never scared." Instead of returning to her work group, she ran to the home of a middle-aged Khmer Rouge female cadre, who had been her group chief at one point. Sarun says, "In one hundred people, maybe one, two are gentle. She like me because I work hard, industrious." The chief had explained to Sarun how to find her, should she ever need her help. It took Sarun three nights and four days to make it to Battambang, but before she was able to reach the woman's home, she was arrested. She told the soldiers that she was the group chief's daughter, as the chief had instructed her to do, and they dragged her off to the chief's home. The group chief accepted her into her home without hesitation.


It was now 1978, and Sarun worked in a cooperative near Battambang until she was transferred with three friends to work at Phnom Sampeau. The fall of the Khmer Rouge regime to the Vietnamese on 27 January 1979 found her and her three friends living together in Battambang. One year later, when she went to ask the government for a job, she met Sarath again. Sarath, with his excellent Vietnamese language skills, had been promoted to a high position in the new Vietnamese-installed government. Even though they had not lived as husband and wife previously, they decided that since they had been through so much, they might as well stay together. Sarun's son came to live with them in 1980, and another son was born in 1981, followed three years later by her last son. At each birth, Sarun cried constantly for her daughter. She could not stop the tears.


During this time, Sarun worked for the public schools as a teacher, and then became director of the high schools in 1987. She held this position until 1994, when she transferred to work full time at the Cambodian Brewery Limited as a sales supervisor for Region 1. Teaching was her passion, but she refused to become involved in the system of corruption, and she could not earn enough money without it. Today, Sarun works long hours in order to keep her sons in school in America. She loves them deeply, there is no question.


Yet in the retelling of her life, Sarun's mother and daughter play the leading roles. Their absence is only physical; in the heart and mind, they are present and very painful. They are present in her thoughts, always, constantly. The love between mother and daughter is a fierce one, and, in the face of death, it can threaten to consume the living. But throughout her life, Sarun has fought the elements, worked as hard as she can, making the best of every situation. She has refused to be consumed, and in fact her love for her daughter led her to welcome me, a foreigner, into her home, because she saw the ghost of her daughter in my face. A stronger woman I have rarely witnessed. In her own words, "If someone can do, I can do. If can climb the palm tree, I can. If 53 or 54 years old, I can. I am not scared about this."










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